The Place of "Professional Development" in the
Mission of Christian Higher Education
Jonathan R. Wilson, Westmont College
In this essay, I draw on Mark Schwehn's Exiles from Eden in order to present a somewhat complex arguement for requiring research and publishing at Christian liberal arts colleges as a central expression of the mission of Christian higher education. First, I argue that professors at Christian liberal arts colleges rightly reject the call to "professional development," understood primarily as evidenced in researching and publishing, when that call is set within a faulty understanding of the academic vocation. Then, still drawing on Schwehn, I argue that a proper understanding of the academic vocation in Christian colleges requires professors there to "develop professionally" through research and writing. Finally, I offer a framework for evaluting professional development as I have reconceived it.
The Place of "Professional Development"
Mission of Christian Higher Education
One of the great historic strengths of Christian liberal arts colleges is their commitment to teaching. Faculty, staff and administration have all made teaching the primary mission of these colleges, whether that teaching takes place in the classroom, on the playing field, in the dorm, in casual contact, or in a multitude of other settings. Faculty, of course, bear the brunt of the teaching responsibility.
In recent years, in addition to this traditional teaching responsibility, another expectation has been placed upon faculty in Christian liberal arts colleges. This expectation may be phrased in various ways, but it often falls under the description of "professional development." This description includes such activities as participating in scholarly societies, researching and publishing, performing and exhibiting.
There are many reasons for the rise of this expectation. Although my main purpose here is not to analyze these reasons, I will note some of them in order to penetrate further into this expectation. Certainly the commitment of Christian liberal arts colleges to engaging our culture leads naturally to the expectation that faculty will pursue that engagement in research and writing. Moreover, the excellence of faculty in Christian liberal arts colleges and their graduate training in research universities lead them to expect professional development of themselves. At times, being located in a Christian liberal arts college may drive some faculty to work hard, in order to show that they are good enough to be in a research university. This is not a complete list of reasons for the rise of professional development at Christian colleges, and in another context much could be learned from analyzing this complex set of reasons, but this list does identify the situation in which we find ourselves. The more important question, however, concerns the larger academic culture within which this expectation arose and whether the expectation has a place in the mission of Christian higher education.
Many questions may be raised about the expectation of professional development and its significance for the mission of Christian higher education. Does the expectation of professional development demand too much of a faculty member? Does it signify or require a diminishing of the importance of teaching? Does it really fit the mission of Christian higher education? Does it signify a capitulation to, or at least the infiltration of, the standards of the research university? These questions, at least, show that the issue of professional development is not a peripheral or isolated issue. Rather, it concerns the very character of a college and the mission of Christian higher education.
In this essay, I will present a somewhat complex argument for requiring research and publishing at Christian liberal arts colleges as a central expression of the mission of Christian higher education. First, I will draw on the work of Mark Schwehn in order to argue that professors at Christian liberal arts colleges rightly reject the call to "professional development," understood primarily as evidenced in researching and publishing, when that call is set within a faulty understanding of the academic vocation. Then, still drawing on Schwehn, I will argue that a proper understanding of the academic vocation in Christian colleges requires professors there to "develop professionally" through research and writing.
In Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, Mark Schwehn makes a strong case for the incoherence and corruption of the modern research university and for the recovery of the coherence of liberal arts education, especially in church-related colleges. He encourages the latter to look not to the "elite" colleges and universities for their mission, but to their own heritage and convictions.(81) His arguments are essentially compelling and his criticism of the academy and his reorientation of academic vocation offer some insights that may guide us as we consider "professional development" in relation to the mission of Christian higher education.
Schwehn's strongest criticisms of the contemporary academy focus on its acceptance of the Weberian notion of scholarship as "the production of knowledge" and its view of humanity as the makers of "truth." (5-16) This model, though practiced only imperfectly in the academy, shapes much of our understanding of academic vocation in the contemporary world. The "real work" of an academic is not teaching, but "making knowledge." So research, and publishing the results of that research, is the primary responsibility of the academic vocation. Teaching is a secondary, perhaps even distracting, responsibility--it keeps us from our "real work."
This analysis helps us understand the value placed on research at the expense of teaching, but it also helps us understand the hierarchy of teaching. If the production of knowledge is valued most highly, then that teaching is most valued which is most directly involved with this task. And that teaching is the teaching of graduate students--thus the hierarchy even within the task of teaching: those teaching graduate students are closer to "real academic work" than those teaching undergraduate majors or, worse yet, general education courses.
Schwehn advances several criticisms of this understanding of the academic vocation. First, it wrongly posits a disjunction among education as character formation, as the transmission of information, and as the making of knowledge.(17) Although Schwehn later criticizes the notion of "making knowledge," he first argues that this disjunction wrongly assumes that the academic vocation cannot involve all three: character formation, information, and knowledge. In its usually exclusive pursuit of making knowledge, this disjunction also fails to recognize that the character of the professor and the student is indeed being formed by this pursuit--a character that is corrupted.
Secondly, then, this Weberian understanding of the academic vocation results in a corrupt set of practices and virtues.(18) The Weberian academic practices "clarity, but not charity; honesty, but not friendliness; devotion to the calling, but not loyalty to particular and local communities of learning." (18) These virtues may enable one to succeed in the present academy, but they ultimately corrupt education. Most importantly for Schwehn, this "Weberian" academy excludes friendship and charity.
Finally, the Weberian approach presupposes an epistemology that has been increasingly questioned. Drawing on various "communitarian" critiques of modernist epistemologies, Schwehn extends these critiques to present a compact and subtle history of the academy's captivity to "foundationalism" and "objectivism." He shows how the academic vocation is shaped by an ideal that values the isolated, alienated individual over communities of learning. He also shows how this ideal obscures the social processes and communal identities that really are present even in this ideal, realities which, if recognized and admitted, undercut the validity of the Weberian ideal.
Schwehn's account is more complex and complete than I can present here, but the main point is clear: our understanding of the academic vocation has been shaped by an understanding that is faulty and becoming increasingly discredited. Although Schwehn is not this explicitly theological, we could say that the Weberian concept of academicians as the makers of knowledge runs counter to the Christian understanding of truth as that which is created by God and discovered by humanity.
With Schwehn's insights before us, we are now in a position to consider the place of "professional development" in a Christian liberal arts setting. Although faculty resistance to expectations of professional development are seldom put in Schwehn's terms (and there may be bad reasons for resisting those standards, such as sloth), I think that some faculty at Christian liberal arts colleges inarticulately resist professional development for just the reasons that Schwehn's analysis exposes. That is, given Schwehn's analysis, many faculty would say "Aha, that is exactly right. That's why I don't publish. I am not a 'maker' of truth."
At this point, faculty are right to resist "professional development," which often coalesces around the activity of research and publication understood as the production of knowledge. Even when they cannot articulate it, some faculty have an inarticulate resistance to that notion. Moreover, they may recognize that such activity corrupts their character--alienates them from their work and their local community, creates loneliness, and denies any commitment to the existence of absolute meaning and truth (Schwehn, 9-19).
So on Schwehn's account there are good reasons for resisting "professional development." For a Christian liberal arts college to accept that notion as it is commonly understood in the academy is to be co-opted by an alien conception of truth and a corrupt set of practices and virtues. Resistance to professional development in this instance is an affirmation of the mission and character of Christian higher education.
However, Schwehn's account does not end here. He goes on to reorient the academic vocation in a way that provides resources for articulating an understanding of professional development congruent with the mission of Christian colleges, as that mission flows from our convictions and tradition.
Schwehn gives several compatible accounts of his reorientation of the academic vocation. One of his most concise descriptions is drawn from Leon Kass, who argues that the academic vocation is education "in and for thoughtfulness" (Schwehn, 58). This formulation has several ramifications. It emphasizes that both teacher and student are involved in being educated: the teacher cannot educate others in and for thoughtfulness if he or she is not also being educated in and for thoughtfulness. More importantly, it emphasizes that education concerns (if we may be granted this artificial distinction) both activity and character. Education should enable both thoughtfulness as "being reflective about important matters" and thoughtfulness as "being considerate of others." In this way, the academic vocation seeks a unity of moral and intellectual virtues.
According to Schwehn, this understanding involves a conceptual shift in our understanding of the academic vocation, not merely a reordering of priorities:
First, teaching, not Wissenschaft, becomes the activity in terms of which all others--publication, collegiality, research, consultation, advising--are to be understood, interpreted, and appraised. Second, the cultivation of those spiritual virtues [Schwehn identifies faith, humility, self-denial, and charity] that make genuine teaching and learning possible becomes a vitally important aspect of pedagogy. Finally, both charity and philia, the loves that Weber banished from the academy, become once again central to its self-conception and to its overall mission in the world. (Schwehn, 58-59)
The conceptual shift that this entails is clearly exposed by an anecdote related by Schwehn at the beginning of his book. A group of faculty are indicating to each other what they listed on their income tax forms under the heading "occupation":
The first person spoke up at once with a kind of brisk confidence. "Sociologist," he said. And so it continued--"anthropologist," "historian," "psychologist," "historian." At about this point (though I have sometimes been slow to catch the drift of things, I did discern this time a clear pattern emerging), I began to wonder whether or not I had the courage to be honest in the company of so many of my senior colleagues. Though trained as an intellectual historian, I had never once thought to put such a designation down under "occupation" on my tax form. When I finally spoke up, I admitted (it certainly felt like an admission) that I had written "college teacher" under the relevant heading. This disclosure was greeted with what I can only describe (though it was doubtless a projection even then) as a combination of mild alarm and studied astonishment. I felt as though I had suddenly become, however briefly, an informant from another culture. (vii-viii)
What if faculty in Christian colleges, recognizing themselves as belonging to a culture alien to the research university, thought of professional development not in Weberian terms, but rather in Christian terms and in relation to our vocation as college teachers? Such a shift entails a reconceptualizing of professional development, not its abandonment.
Schwehn himself develops some of the implications of his conceptual shift for understanding "scholarship" (his term for what is roughly equivalent to "professional development"). The conceptual shift to understanding teaching as the primary academic calling does not denigrate scholarship; rather, it recognizes the purpose and larger setting of scholarship. Indeed, Schwehn argues that scholarship is a form of teaching. (68-69, 75-76) This understanding of scholarship as a form of teaching provides us with the base from which to build an understanding of professional development that both develops from the mission of Christian colleges and in turn furthers our understanding of that mission.
If the calling of Christian college faculty is to educate others in and for thoughtfulness in ways that are distinctively Christian, then we must ourselves be educated in and for thoughtfulness. This educational process necessarily involves those activities that we identify as "professional development." That is, if we as Christian college faculty are to be educated in and for thoughtfulness, then we must continue to submit ourselves to learning from others. Of course, we must set this process within the context of Schwehn's redescription of the academic vocation. We must see ourselves not as "makers of knowledge," but as inquirers after truth who practice the virtue of faith by believing that there is more to learn, who practice the virtue of humility by believing that we cannot learn it on our own, who practice the virtue of self-denial by recognizing that we will need correction, and who practice the virtue of charity by believing that others may know more than we know. As these virtues are inculcated in us through professional development, we will embody them for our students. In this way, as we are educated in and for thoughtfulness, we will educate our students in the same.
"Professional development," then, is one way to describe how professors continue to be educated in and for thoughtfulness so that we may carry out our calling. Thus situated within the framework of teaching as the academic vocation, professional development comes in various forms. For the sake of clarity and specificity I will number the ways we may identify and evaluate professional development as a necessary part of the academic vocation at Christian colleges. As I develop this account, I will seek to specify the "communities" within which education takes place. Obviously, the relation at each point is reciprocal: as the professor teaches his or her students, colleagues, and others, the professor will also be learning with them.
This list merely seeks to make my proposal concrete by setting a framework for evaluating professional development in Christian colleges. How these various activities of professional development are evaluated and weighted will vary among institutions, among departments within an institution, and among faculty ranks. Moreover, standards of evaluation must take into account the constraints of Christian colleges. Since most colleges do not have the endowment to support the kind of research that goes on in major universities, Christian colleges cannot often provide the material and release-time for some kinds of research. But that does not mean that there is no place for "professional development" in Christian higher education. Instead, it is an opportunity to rethink the academic vocation and its place in Christian colleges. Schwehn's account shows us that however we evaluate and rank them, the activities we identify as professional development are not an accessory to the academic vocation or even a support for it; rather, these activities are an integral part and necessary expression of the mission of Christian liberal arts colleges and of the academic vocation.
The demands upon professors in Christian colleges are great and often difficult to manage and to evaluate. We rightly reject the Weberian understanding of the academic vocation because of its incongruence with the mission of Christian higher education. But if we understand the academic vocation at a Christian college as Schwehn has redescribed it, then fulfilling that vocation calls each of us to teach and to be taught in the variety of ways identified as "professional development." In so doing, we will practice the virtues of humility, faith, self-denial, and charity; we will develop deep and abiding friendships sustained by communities of learning; we will discover God's truth; and, by God's grace, we will become teachers of others.Jonathan R. WilsonAssociate Professor of Religious StudiesWestmont College The Place of "Professional Development" in the Mission of Christian Higher Education"